Ron Chernow’s new biography, Grant (Penguin Press, October 2017) upsets a century and half of historiography, illuminating Ulysses S. Grant as a flawed but just man who, despite his drinking problem, won the Civil War and, despite the scandals that marred his presidency, should be remembered as one of our major chief executives.
You presented conclusive evidence, far more than previous biographers, that Ulysses S. Grant was an alcoholic.
I didn’t expect to come to that conclusion. I expected to follow previous authors in saying that Grant’s political enemies and rivals were almost the sole source of malicious drinking charges. Letters contained in the 32 volumes of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by John Y. Simon, are remarkably consistent in how Grant’s drinking is portrayed, even though the letters were written by different people in different places and at different times. These people could not have coordinated their statements with one another. A fascinating pattern emerged: Grant was in fact not a daily drinker, he had a certain degree of control. But he went on drinking sprees every two to three months. It was almost as though he could plan them.
Did Grant’s drinking ever affect his ability to command?
The sprees never occurred during moments of responsibility—much less in the middle of a battle—so they did not impair his functioning as a general in any way. He would seem to schedule these binges for after battles or after moments of tremendous stress and responsibility. He would go someplace his men and his officers couldn’t see him. He had this remarkable ability, noted by many, to shake it off and snap back to this very serious general’s personality. These descriptions were so numerous and similar that I’d like to think I’ve settled this issue once and for all.
Talk about the role of John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff.
Grant met Rawlins in Galena, Ill., before the war. Rawlins was a lawyer who did work for the Grant family business and the two men became close friends. When Grant was appointed brigadier general in August 1861, he added Rawlins onto his staff as adjutant; he effectively acted as chief of staff for the rest of the war. Rawlins was a passionate temperance man and he exacted a promise from Grant: he would stay on staff only if Grant promised not to touch a drop of liquor. If the general had a lapse, Rawlins warned that he would call Grant on it and quit. Grant got drunk many times, but instead of quitting, Rawlins—an intensely patriotic man—decided that the fate of the Union cause rested on the shoulders of Ulysses S. Grant. Rawlins ended up playing a strange double game in which he castigated Grant severely for drinking while defending Grant to the outside world, that is, Lincoln, Stanton, and other people in Washington who wanted reassurance that Grant didn’t have a drinking problem. Rawlins did a tremendous service to the Union by helping Grant continue to function. By the time Grant was made general-in-chief, it was an open secret that Rawlins played this special role. Rawlins was rewarded with a brigadier generalship and even though he had no military experience before the war, he became an excellent strategist. Grant was better; I don’t agree with those who say Rawlins was the Union Army’s hidden genius. After the war, Grant named Rawlins secretary of war, but Rawlins had tuberculosis and he died after about six months in that office.
How did Grant’s trusting nature affect him as general and president? Grant was nonconfrontational and that helped in his dealings with people. He was never a tyrannical or arbitrary boss; he treated people with great courtesy and civility. He dealt very shrewdly with the political generals. Rather than confronting them openly and getting into shouting matches, he was very good at bureaucratic maneuvering, whether it was moving John McClernand out of the way at Vicksburg or trying to push out Ben Butler at Petersburg. He was not afraid, in cases where he thought someone was unfit for command, to try to get rid of them, but he didn’t do it in an abrasive, confrontational fashion.
As president, his nonconfrontational nature worked against him, making him blind to corruption among his aides.
Grant was a naïve and credulous person who wanted to think well of people. During the war, he demonstrated that he was a shrewd judge of character, but during his presidency, many people abused his trust and were disloyal or two-faced toward him. I think it stems back to the days before the war when he struggled to make a living and felt that people had lost faith in him. It gave Grant a sympathy toward the underdog. Sometimes absolute scoundrels took advantage of that and he didn’t see it. He didn’t want to lose faith in people.
How should history remember Grant?
Very favorably. His importance far transcends that of his success as a Union general. He came to carried the weight of the nation on his shoulders. He did not start the war as an abolitionist and it’s amazing to watch as he becomes committed to training and using black soldiers, and helping fugitive slaves to start a new life. That carries beyond the war. He was the single most important president in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson and that, unfortunately, is an overlooked story. The scandals that occurred during his administration obscured the infinitely more important effort to reintegrate the Southern states into the Union while protecting black people. His dedication and commitment to those twin causes grew throughout his life.